Good Organizing Makes Strong Unions

United Electrical has consistently been one of the most radical unions in the US, but how has this translated to building working-class political power? Ryan Kekeris takes a look at what we can learn from UE and where we should look to go further.

A recent piece in Jacobin profiles the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) and the release of their new booklet titled “Them and Us.”  The booklet provides refreshing and important lessons on class struggle, political independence, and rank and file unionism, rhetoric that is largely absent from the rest of the US labor movement. 

While UE has consistently remained as one of the most democratic and militant unions in the United States, we also must reckon with its failures. UE has been largely unable to organize new workers or industries in recent decades, and has been largely powerless in the face of de-industrialization and globalization. Any 21st century blueprint for labor must include that reckoning if we want to develop the strategies and the campaigns needed to build a revitalized labor movement. 

The UE has an alluring history. Founded in 1936, the union had an explosive start and rapidly expanded in membership and influence. The membership of the UE has always had a particular concentration of radical members–socialists, communists and former IWW members, which helped foster a democratic and militant union. Following the wave of post-war strikes in 1946 and the ensuing backlash with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, the UE initially refused to sign the “non-communist affidavits” and expel their radical members. 

Because of UE’s refusal to purge socialists from its ranks, the Taft-Hartley Act prohibited the UE from appearing on NLRB election ballots, leading to massive losses in membership to predatory CIO raids. Even after UE reversed their stance on the affidavits, CIO raids continued. The CIO even went as far as chartering a rival union, the International Union of Electric, Radio, and Machine workers. 

For decades, UE has been in a managed decline. It courted other independent unions and pushed for strategic mergers to add influxes of new members periodically, but not enough to keep up with their declining industrial membership. Sometimes the imperatives of its organizational weakness undermined the union’s radical pedigree, such as in 2005, when approximately 2,300 members from the Connecticut Independent Labor and Police Unions voted to merge with UE Local 222.

By 2008, at the height of the Great Recession, UE Local 1110 workers at Republic Windows and Doors occupied the plant and went on strike. Located in Chicago, the plant gave workers three days’ notice before closing. In violation of federal law, the bosses refused to pay the employees for their vacation pay. The sit-down strike finally ended after workers won a settlement of severance and owed benefits, but workers could not stop the plant from closing.

While this was a great example of UE’s union militancy, it also wasn’t enough to stop a plant closure nor did it spur any sort of new organizing. While the plant reopened at various points and now operates as a cooperative, it employs only 17 workers, down from 240 in 2008. This was an all too familiar outcome that is largely beyond the control of a single union. 

More recently, UE is partnering with DSA to form the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, or EWOC. The intent of this project is “an attempt to apply the lessons and tactics of volunteer-led distributed organizing to the workplace. Our goal is to bring the model of organizing developed in the Bernie Sanders campaign to workers and to facilitate short-term workplace actions that build their capacity to fight and win.”

This sort of 21st century organizing is exactly the direction that a union like United Electric should pursue. Rather than restrict themselves to increasingly outdated jurisdictional carve-outs, UE should seek to meet the 90% of US workers who are unorganized. The industries that UE formed to organize are largely gone. There are millions of workers that are waiting for them today. DSA chapters can serve as the connective tissue necessary to organize new workers.

Surviving McCarthyism, raiding by other unions, and decades of outsourcing is not an easy feat. While UE has maintained its commitments around militancy, democratic unionism, and political independence, it has been in decline since its peak of 600,000 members. Today, UE is roughly half of the size of DSA, numbering just 34,275 members as of 2018. 

We should be under no illusions that organizing is an easy task. US labor law is perhaps more punitive now than when the UE was originally organized. Union busting is more sophisticated, workers are increasingly misclassified or undocumented, and the NLRB is largely nonfunctional. Despite that, other unions with decidedly worse politics have been able to organize new members, although not to the levels necessary to reinvigorate a shrinking movement. 

It is tempting to defend and to lionize one of the few examples of a progressive, militant union. If we assume that good politics means good organizing, we risk ignoring the material conditions. What the labor movement needs today are honest assessments and realistic strategies to build unions that do have the good politics and culture of UE, as well as the ability to grow and organize new workers. We cannot cling to the notion that if more unions simply had better politics, our power would grow. We cannot ignore the bad in favor of the good. 

There are many things worth emulating from United Electric. Their existence as a militant and democratic union is an unambiguous good unto itself. We must look to build new strategies and new models, drawing inspiration from unions like United Electric, but ultimately grounded in power analysis of material conditions, to build a labor movement capable of going beyond the limitations of 20th century unionism. 

We must reject the tendency to assume that the primary causes of our weakened labor movement are grounded in ideology. Simply put, the individual efforts of unions like UE are not enough to rebuild today’s labor movement. We should look to them for an important lesson–our politics alone are not enough to save us. While politics are important, so is power.

Ryan Kekeris is a union organizer in the building trades and a member of Baltimore DSA.